The Dhaba

child labour

“One extra-spicy Schezwan fried rice” someone shouted from behind me. I had heard it perfectly yet my over-specific manager ran up to me and shouted the order again. It had been three days since I’d started working at this roadside restaurant, six days since my father had passed away and a month since I had been dismissed from school for not being able to pay my fees. My mother had been bed-ridden for as long as my memory extends and I have no siblings. But believe me, there are still more unfortunate people than myself. I atleast had a job.

“What are you looking at? Start cooking… can’t you see the customer waiting” my manager said, throwing a smile at the customer and a killer stare at me. I started preparing that all-so-important fried rice. Believe me, I hadn’t cooked before but learnt how to within the first day I started working here. I would probably attribute it to the push that if I didn’t learn, I would starve another day. Also, I needed money to pay for my mother’s medication.

I came out of the thatched roof under which I was cooking to serve the customer his dish. He started staring at me, then my manager and then back at me. I walked up to his table and kept the plate on his table. Just when I was about to turn, he caught hold of my wrist. “How old are you?” he asked. I didn’t know why he was asking my age. I turned to look at my manager who came running towards the table asking “Is anything wrong?” and turned to give me that killer stare again. My insides started churning with fear. “It’s nothing but tell me… how old is the boy?”

“What is your age?” he turned and asked me seeing that my manager wouldn’t answer. “I asked you a question!” he shouted and I squirmed. “Twelve years. I am twelve years old” I replied. “How dare you make such a young kid work in your kitchen!” he stood up and my manager sure looked intimidated. “Sir…”. “Don’t you know it is a crime? Would you make a child work just for your restaurant’s profit?” he asked. He pulled me and showed my hands to my manager. “Look. He has so many bruises and burns because of working here” He shouted and everyone had started to notice. My manager looked at me and said “Get inside” and I obeyed silently. I couched behind a mud wall and saw my manager trying to pacify the enraged customer. It soon seemed to me that the customer had calmed down.

After all the customers left, my manager called me out. “You needn’t come tomorrow. I had to endure all this just because you are working here. I will find someone else from tomorrow.” He gave me Thirty rupees. “Sir. Please sir. I am ready to even work over-time” tears started rolling down my face. I wanted the job badly. I had tried hard for three days to get this job and I wasn’t sure how long it would to find another. The house rent would be due another week, mom’s consultation in ten days. These thirty rupees weren’t enough. I cried, fell on his feet but he wouldn’t listen. He forced the money into my hand and walked away.

I came outside the restaurant and was sitting on the corner of the road, weeping at how I would go home and face my mother. “Hey you. Why are you crying?” a middle aged man walked towards me and sat next to me. He kept patting my back as I told him my entire story. “Hmm. That’s sad. How about I give you a job. Are you interested?” he asked. I glowed with happiness and replied “I will do anything”. “Come with me”. He took me to a house and we sat behind the stone wall around it. “My legs are hurt. Can you jump over this wall?” he asked. “Yes I can” and before I could realise it, I was on the other side of the wall. “Get inside the house. The second room to your left. I will give you the key to the locker I that room. All you have to do is to empty the jewellery and money from that locker into this bag.” he threw a bag which landed on my head and I found the key inside it. I didn’t want to steal. I sat there waiting.

“What are you thinking about? I will pay you one thousand rupees. Just be quick with it” He said. Money drove me and I came back with all the jewellery and money that I could find. He handed me a thousand rupee note from within the bag and asked if I wanted to do it again. I had never seen a thousand rupee note before. I wondered how much I could do with this money and a sudden “yes” escaped my mouth. He asked me for my address and left. There I stood, transformed into a thief.

Thousand rupees. That thousand rupees note has landed me here. I looked around at the freshly whitewashed walls that made my cell. The wet air around with the smell of self-hatred that I was emanating made me feel nauseated. I lost my mother, lost my livelihood… lost everything. Who was truly responsible? Was it the twelve year old me? Was it the man with the hurt leg? Or was it really the customer who wanted to HELP me by making me jobless and desperate for money? I stared at the white ceiling above me being sure that these questions would haunt me forever.

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